It is an understatement to say I am very pleased to rise to speak on this bill.
Finally we are debating a National Anti Corruption Commission.
And today I am wearing a special brooch gifted to me by the people of Indi. When I started this crusade for an integrity body in the Federal Parliament.
It’s a cockatoo, and the cockatoo is a mascot of the people of Indi. But they made me a special one, one with teeth, because they told me, ‘Helen you must not rest until we have an integrity commission with teeth.
As parliamentarians we are sent here by people we represent to make decisions in their best interests. To make laws in the public interest, to approve spending public funds on the most worthy causes, in the most efficient way possible.
We are sent here to act with integrity, to uphold the dignity of public office, to execute our significant powers in good faith.
Yet, too often, this is not what the Australian people see.
Instead, they see public money spent for political gain. Marginal seats that get all the shiny infrastructure projects, while safe seats get nothing. Decisions that seem to benefit the interests of major donors over the interests of the community.
Car park rorts.
Jobs for mates.
It is these scandals, and more, that are chipping away the trust Australians have in Government, in democracy, in all of us here in this place.
If we want the trust of the Australian people, if we want them to trust in Government and democracy, we have to show bad behaviour won’t be swept under the rug. That there are consequences. That we are holding ourselves accountable to them.
That is why we need a strong National Anti-Corruption Commission. That is independent of Government. That has a broad definition of corruption. That is properly funded. That is transparent. To bring integrity back to politics and to earn back the trust of the people who elect us.
History of the NACC
I was elected on a platform of integrity, to bring the standards of integrity and decency I saw upheld by my colleagues in my career as a nurse and midwife, as a research academic in hospitals, clinics and universities, as a company director in not for profit organisations, to this place.
By the time I came to Parliament in 2019, there had been more than six years of Parliamentary advocacy to establish an integrity commission. And more than a decade of public advocacy.
In 2018, this House passed a Senate motion calling for a National Integrity Commission. Emboldened, my predecessor Cathy McGowan introduced a National Integrity Commission Bill with the Greens introducing a similar Bill in the Senate.
A month later the former Government committed to establishing a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, a promise they took into the 46th Parliament.
I started my Parliamentary career as an optimist. I still am but I’ve learnt a thing or two along the way, particularly about parliamentary process. I believed the former Attorney General’s assurances that an integrity commission was priority reform. But as the year wore on the stalling tactics became obvious, and then insulting. Not just to the parliament but to the Australian people. It felt to me that the whole thing had became a farce.
Tired of waiting, I worked with constituents, esteemed judges, ethicists, legal academics, integrity bodies and MPs across the parliament to write a consensus bill that made the grade. And to those dedicated erudite people who worked so hard with me – Professor AJ Brown, The Hon David Harper, The Hon Margaret White, The Hon Anthony Whealy, The Hon Stephen Charles, The Hon Mary Gaudron, the Hon Geoffrey Watson, Fiona McLeod KC, Members of the Accountability Round Table, Transparency International Australia, the list goes on.
The nation owes you a debt.
In 2020 I tabled my Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill, which I am proud has served as a model for the legislation here today. Just one week later, we finally saw the exposure draft legislation for the Commonwealth Integrity Commission from the previous Government.
Standing here now, it’s important to reflect on how bad this model was. No public hearings. No public referrals. A definition of corrupt conduct limited to criminal offences. Limited ability to look into corruption that occurred in the past. It was rightly trashed from pillar to post.
But Mr Deputy Speaker I want to highlight right now the work of the new Leader of the Opposition and to highlight his leadership role in bringing the Coalition to the table in such a way as we have now. I want to thank him very much. I want to thank Senator Scarr and the Member for Menzies for the way they worked in the Parliamentary Committee that I’ve just served on inquiring into this Bill.
In November 2021 I tabled my Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill again and called on the Parliament to bring on debate. Historically that vote had the majority on the floor of Parliament because the majority of people wanted an Integrity Commission. I was unsuccessful on that day on a technicality with the COVID rules and the former Government dug in. They had a model and they weren’t going to change it. If people didn’t like it, that was their problem.
But, as it turns out, it was actually THEIR problem. Integrity in politics is not a niche issue. From Mansfield to Wahgunyah, from Kinglake to Corryong, people everywhere told me to keep up the fight.
Independents who made integrity their central policy were elected in record numbers at the last election. Like me, their communities have sent them here to secure a strong anti-corruption commission.
I am a vocal supporter of this Bill. I believe it is an excellent model. It will establish a powerful anti-corruption commission. But it can be better.
I worked hard as deputy chair of the Committee as did my fellow members, that examined this bill to ensure that we gave it proper scrutiny. I am pleased that the Government has accepted all of our recommendations.
I am especially pleased the Government has taken up the proposal from my Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill to explicitly give the NACC the power to commence corruption investigations on its own initiative. This is a crucial power, central to the NACC’s independence and to its role in education and improving Commonwealth governance.
But this model can be improved further before we deliver the Australian people the national anti-corruption commission they deserve, that is fit for purpose and fulfils its role for many years to come.
Because as legislators we are legislating right into the future.
I promised the people of Indi and the nation that I would work all the way to the finish line on this legislation to get the best possible integrity body that we can.
And Mr Deputy Speaker not all Parliaments get the opportunity to set up a transformative, independent body such as this. We do.
Firstly, I will move an amendment to strike out the unnecessary and alarming “exceptional circumstances” requirement.
This is the single most important change to the Bill. The “exceptional circumstances” requirement is the biggest threat to the openness of the Commission.
My amendment will ensure that the Commissioner may decide to hold public hearing if the Commissioner is satisfied that it would be in the public interest. Tested. Simple. And safe.
This is not just a fine legal point. It is a threshold question for public trust and the principle of transparency.
The committee inquiry heard little support from witnesses or submissions for the exceptional circumstances test, and an overwhelming amount of evidence against it. Former judges, past and current ICAC and IBAC commissioners and transparency advocates all want it gone.
The exceptional circumstances test has been opposed by Professor Anne Twomey, the honourable Robert Redlich, National Integrity Committee member and former Supreme Court Judge the Hon. David Harper AM, the Centre for Public Integrity, the Accountability Round Table, the Ethics Centre, the Governance Institute of Australia, Transparency International Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission, and the Institute for Ethics, Governance and the Law.
Looking back through materials presented to me at a stakeholder roundtable with the Attorney General in June, there was no mention of exceptional circumstances.
The very Department that drafted this Bill was unable to say when the clause was added. People have drawn their own conclusions and rightly they should.
In standing by the exceptional circumstances clause, Coalition members have cited fears about the grave mental health impacts which may arise from appearing before a public hearing. These are really important concerns and I share them.
But they can be addressed in a way which enhances protections but does not hide the most critical corruption investigations away in the dark.
That’s why I will move an amendment to make it mandatory for the Commissioner to consider certain factors when deciding whether to hold a public hearing, including unfair prejudice to a person’s reputation, privacy, safety or wellbeing caused from a public hearing.
This was supported by Transparency International Australia and the Law Council of Australia. It is already in place for the Australian Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner and in some state anti-corruption commissions, including NSW.
If “exceptional circumstances” remains, it should be defined. The public deserves to know what circumstances justify the holding of a public hearing. My amendment will define exceptional circumstances to mean “circumstances where it is preferrable or appropriate for evidence to be heard in public”.
This will ensure that the number of private hearings are not unreasonably increased due to the ambiguity of the phrase. This was supported by the Australian Federal Police Association, the Community and Public Sector Union, and Transparency International Australia.
Secondly, my amendments will seek to enshrine a broad definition of corruption. My amendments will ensure the Commission has explicit jurisdiction to investigate pork barrelling when it meets the threshold of serious and systemic corrupt conduct.
Pork barrelling will be defined as “any conduct that involves the allocation of public funds and resources to targeted electors for partisan political purposes”.
The major parties’ silence when it comes to pork barrelling is deafening. Let’s call it for what it is – it’s buying votes with taxpayer money. It doesn’t pass the pub test. My constituents are stumped why it still goes on.
Given the level of public concern regarding the alleged misuse of billions of dollars of public grant funds, there should be no ambiguity regarding the NACC’s ability to investigate this questionable practice.
I will also move an amendment to ensure that the conduct of any person, and notably third persons, that could impair public confidence in public administration, can be investigated by the NACC, when it meets the threshold of being serious and systemic.
This is a tried-and-true provision in every single anti-corruption body in Australia, apart from Western Australia and Tasmania. It belongs in this model too.
Thirdly, I will move amendments to strengthen the all-important parliamentary oversight committee’s role in keeping the NACC independent.
This amendment will ensure that decision to approve or reject recommendations for the appointment of the Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, or Inspector is a true consensus decision, not a Government fait accompli.
I have got two alternative amendments to do this. The Committee must make the appointment decision by majority. My amendment ensures this majority must have either two non-government members, or alternatively the majority must be made up of two-thirds of the Committee members and I’ll be seeking to amend the bill around these areas.
This will ensure that appointment decisions have multi-partisan support and the Committee does not become a rubber stamp as a Government-stacked oversight body.
And fourth, I will introduce amendments to enhance budgetary transparency and oversight. Around Australia, anti-corruption commissions have been starved of adequate funding. Even the threat of funding cuts could can have a silencing effect on investigations.
My amendments will require the Parliamentary Joint Committee to review the NACC’s budgets every 12 months and will require the Minister to table a statement of reasons if they deviate from the recommendations of this Parliamentary Joint Committee in relation to the budget.
These amendments will ensure the review function is used and give the public and this Parliament the chance to scrutinise the Government’s decisions in relation to funding requests.
In conclusion it is persistent advocacy that has brought us to this moment today. From civil society, from the crossbench, from the Australian people. Keeping the pressure on has kept this on the agenda.
And I congratulate the Attorney General for his work on the Bill. I congratulate the Government for making this a priority agenda item for this Parliament.
Big reforms don’t just happen. They’re made up of dozens of quiet conversations between unlikely allies, united across party lines. And at this point I wish to acknowledge the Member for Bass who through the difficulty of pressures in the last parliament stood true to her convictions to restore integrity to this place. History will judge her well.
Parliamentary moments that cut through the noise. Another trip to another Attorney General’s office or the Prime Minister’s office. Collaboration with the people, it has borne results.
I call on all members of this Parliament to support this Bill.
I sincerely hope today is the first step in the long road to restoring trust in federal politics and integrity to public life.